Standing on the hillside as the steady wind blows, it doesn’t take an avenue of flags for visitors to understand they are standing in a special place. You can find veterans of the Civil War buried here. Among the many graves divided into a large grid by a series of paved roads is the final resting place of La Porte City’s founding father, Dr. Jesse Wasson. West View Cemetery is hallowed ground where, for the last 150 years, people from near and far have come to honor the dead and pay their final respects to family members and friends.
With such an important piece of local history laying adjacent to the La Porte City Golf Club, just outside city limits, it is surprising the small number of people entrusted with its care. The West View Cemetery Board of Trustees, a not for profit organization, consists of a handful of individuals who serve essentially as volunteers, working behind the scenes to ensure everything is in its proper place when services are conducted at the cemetery. The Board is also responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of this sacred place. Much of this work is carried out by Bill Monteith, the cemetery’s Caretaker.
As nature makes the transition from winter to spring, so too, does West View Cemetery. This year, April 5th is the date that marks an important transition for decorations allowed in the cemetery, as all winter wreaths and decorations must be removed by that date.
As the weather turns warmer, many families will opt for fresh flowers to serve as decorations on Easter, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and Father’s Day. The cemetery’s rules for Spring Cleanup are designed to support the upkeep of the grounds and allow all who visit the opportunity to enjoy a neat, tidy and serene location, one where the utmost respect is shown for those who come to pay their respects.
Keeping the cemetery looking at its best is not without challenges, however. The same steady wind that tests the placement of wreaths and other decorations during the winter months can easily lift spring flowers out of their vases, scattering them as they tumble at the whim of springtime breezes. Once airborne, a fence at the cemetery’s eastern perimeter stands as the only barrier left to contain them.
Perhaps the greatest frustration shared by the cemetery’s visitors and caretakers alike is the displacement of memorials, most often flowers, that have been lovingly left at a gravesite. More often than not, it is the wind that serves as the culprit. With hundreds of gravesites to care for, it is difficult, if not impossible for caretakers to return flowers they find plastered against a fence to the grave where they were originally placed.
During a recent tour of the cemetery, Chairman Bill Starr described some of the changes and improvements the Board of Trustees is looking to make in 2017. Sometime before Memorial Day, he said visitors can expect to see new signage where the cemetery’s hours and reminders of the rules will be displayed.
“We’ve had some close calls with people who were coming out of the driveway by the building, so we’re going to make that a one-way street,” he said, describing a change being made to help prevent potential accidents involving vehicles traveling east on Bishop Road, where a slope in the road creates limited visibility for vehicles exiting the cemetery.
Starr, the former manager of La Porte City Utilities who retired in 2004 and presently operates an auction house in his spare time, likes to keep busy. His involvement with the Cemetery Board of Trustees was inspired by his father-in-law, Herbert Johannsen, who after being involved with the cemetery’s operations for many years, died in 1964.
“It’s important for people to serve the community,” he said, explaining why, after several years, he continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.
Service can come in many different forms, including taking calls from out of state family members on a geneology quest. It just so happens that West View Cemetery’s Board Chairman and cemetery burial records dating back more than one hundred years share a disdain for computer technology. On more than one occasion, Starr has waded through pages of handwritten records in search of information to answer inquiries from faraway family members. For Bill Starr, service to the community is not limited to the 50651 ZIP Code.
One little known fact about West View Cemetery is that it remains one of the few cemeteries in the area where graves are still dug by hand. Starr can only recall a few instances where equipment, such as a backhoe, had to be used for that purpose at the La Porte City cemetery.
“They (backhoes) don’t have the finesse that hand digging does. His [Bill Monteith’s] walls are very straight and eveything is true with the world,” Starr said, noting that gravedigging by hand usually involves two people working together for safety’s sake.
Another little known fact about West View Cemetery is the presence of a special section known as Babyland, a place where the cemetery does not charge for the interment of infants and young children.
As the Board of Trustees looks at the ongoing needs of the cemetery and what the distant future may bring, there are short-term projects, like patching rough spots on the roads, and long-term issues related to ongoing care of the cemetery’s monuments, markers, grounds and facilities.
Starr said one of the challenges associated with perpetual care, which typically amounts to 20% of the amount paid for interment, are the restrictions Iowa law imposes on the use of those funds. He cited the example of another cemetery where high winds knocked down trees, inflicting damage totalling tens of thousands of dollars. After use of the funds in cemetery’s perpetual care account was denied, the necessary repairs were made only after generous donations were received from the cemetery’s community.
West View Cemetery is not without its own unique financial challenges. Last year, the Board of Trustees had to dip into their reserves to find the $3,000 needed to balance the cemetery’s annual expenses with its income. Unfortunately, in recent years, the low interest rates associated with certificates of deposits, a popular strategy for safely generating interest income, has taken a bite out of the cemetery’s revenue stream, leaving the Board of Trustees to look for ways to balance the ledger sheet. Many cemeteries are the benficiaries of memorial gifts in the form of bequests, as well as donations from families who wish to support the ongoing care and upkeep of their loved one’s final resting place. Starr is hopeful that West View Cemetery’s encouragement of such gifts will help provide the financial stability needed for the cemetery to accomplish it short and long-term goals.
At its current rate of growth, Starr estimates West View Cemetery has sufficient space to continue operating for another 25-30 years. Planning for the future means the Board will need to carefully consider its options for expansion and what additional space, if any, will need to be added.
To be sure, anticipating the future of West View Cemetery is an ongoing challenge. But it’s important work to which the Board of Trustees remains committed in order to preserve the sanctity of a sacred place.
West View Cemetery Board of Trustees
Chairman: Bill Starr Jr. 319-230-3857
Vice Chairman: Steven J. Miller
Secretary/Treasurer: Marilyn Purdy 319-342-3174 (for lot sales)
Rocky Brown, Tom Juhl and Lloyd Bathen
Follow any rules and regulations that may be posted at a cemetery. In the absence of posted rules, the following guidelines are considered proper cemetery ettiquette:
- Most cemeteries are open from dawn until dusk.
- Follow the roadways and drive slowly, remain off the grass. Watch out for people who may not be paying attention.
- If you bring children, teach them to have respect in the cemetery. A cemetery is not a playground and should not be treated as such.
- Remember to be respectful by keeping voices down. Don’t use bad language. Don’t use your cell phone, as voices tend to carry in open spaces. Turn off your car stereo while driving or parking in the cemetery.
- Don’t touch any monuments or gravestones. NEVER remove anything from a gravestone, like flowers, coins, stones or other artifacts that have been left by family.
- If a funeral is occurring, consider making a visit at another time. NEVER get in the way of funeral processions.
- Don’t leave any trash behind in a cemetery. If you find litter, please be helpful and remove it.